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Sunday, February 15, 2009 -- 5:46 am

At one point I used to keep a notebook on various observations relating to human nature, and this website has, to a certain extent, taken over some of that role. Many events in my life, both dramatic and miniscule, tend to come in pairs -- such deaths in the family, or challenges or adversities at work that tend to have uncanny parallels -- and this tends to highlight certain lessons that I feel might otherwise be lost or at least risk being overlooked.

People are not to be trusted. I don't mean by this that every single person is a liar and a cheat; that is not the case. But at the same time, betrayal means more than violating a spoken pledge. The face that someone shows us is not necessarily the face they show others, and even without attributing sinister motives to them, people falling under certain personality profiles may be obsequious, or eager to please, or spineless yes-men, or flunkies exercising no judgment, or for reasons of delicacy unwilling or unable to express what they really mean when they're dealing with you directly. You may find that they're telling others something very different from what they're saying to you, based on the exigencies of their particular situation. Likewise, people often seem to have bizarre and surprising ways of interpreting situations. I've received countless calls from clients at strange hours telling me that something was an emergency, or that someone else was concerned or likely to take preemptive action, when in my own investigation that simply turned out not to be the case. Often the third party is quite surprised (or even insulted) by the reaction or emotions attributed to them. I have long since learned not to rely completely on another's investigation or factual assessment.

Although I somehow have never had a problem with this, many people seem not to realize that it's not enough to recommend an effective solution to a problem. In many cases, you have to respect the process by which the recipient of your recommendation gets used to the idea of action and comes to accept the action as their own. The more drastic the call, the more they need to be prepared for it psychologically. And for you to have any right to say that you have authority to act as you think best, you have to confer and agree before action is taken, rather than after the fact. And people need time to absorb information, think things over, and get used to an idea before they can reasonably be expected to act. I would have thought this would be obvious. But there really are intelligent people out there who blithely assume that they have unfettered authority when that was not at all the case, or present an ultimatum, fait accompli, or need for an immediate, life-changing decision that they've had an opportunity to think about for months, but the audience is learning of for the first time, and then be surprised and outraged when their demands are not well received.

People almost always respond far worse to a suggestion that they have acted inappropriately than we would naively be inclined to expect. It doesn't matter how diplomatic our phrasing, or how much we might charitably describing the "potential misunderstanding"; if what we're saying could reasonably be interpreted as a suggestion that the other is unethical, irresponsible, or incompetent, or otherwise wounds their pride, chances are that they will interpret it that way, that they'll be furious, and they may react in ways that we, in studied calm, would consider irrational. Truth is always the first martyr in such disputes, because it stands in the way of the arguments Anger needs to advance. And once pride has been wounded and anger invoked, the relationship may never truly return to its former innocence.

Anger is not always sincere. Sometimes it is a consciously adopted means -- an intimidation tactic -- to try to solve a political problem. The fact that someone is yelling at you doesn't (necessarily) mean you've done something wrong. It mostly means that someone is trying to get you do something, most likely for their own reasons, and that you need to decide for yourself what is an appropriate course of action.

Sunday, February 15, 2009 -- 5:28 am

By now it should be clear from the time stamps that I'm coping with a bout of insomnia by getting a lot of things off my chest. And so it is that I've witnessed enough of other people's projects going awry in the past few years to conclude that there would be a real benefit in more people studying the field I've come to think of as "catastrophology": the science of why things go wrong. This is already an established field, if perhaps under some other name -- classic works such as "Human Error" and "Groupthink" certainly attest to that. But for people to be aware of such a field of inquiry, and not to study it, seems to be inviting disaster. As I've noted below, many of our problems are of our own, ill-advised creation.

Sunday, February 15, 2009 -- 5:11 am

I hear there's a study out that says that even if you're not actively studying a foreign language, being exposed to it even without comprehending it has substantial benefits because it allows your unconscious to develop the necessary neural connections to parse unfamiliar sounds and to sort what you're hearing into words. I suppose this makes sense. It reminds me of Lockwood's introduction to his text on Nahuatl, in which he points out that although he used to offer an accelerated course covering the same material in half the time, it wasn't as effective; it seemed that there was much his students gained simply through the passage of time. In addition to studying the language, they needed to get used to it, and that was a separate process. The immediate application of this is that I should be making a more concerted effort to surround myself with audio and video in Mandarin, Arabic, etc., but this sounds like something of more general application as well. For example, if I'm interested in improving my ear for microtonal intervals, there's a substantial benefit to having microtonal music playing in the background even if I'm not actively studying it. I like the fact that the brain, and more specifically our unconscious, is hard-wired to learn, and will proceed to do so if we don't get in its way.

Sunday, February 15, 2009 -- 5:03 am

Somewhat comparable to the phenomenon of foreign languages affording us alternate personas is the phenomenon of languages being used to define and enclose social spaces. I'm habitually irked by the decision by people around me to slip into another language specifically to include others and exclude me, and I know from conversation and internet reading that it's an extremely common occurrence. I consider such conduct rude and unprofessional. But at the same time, I like the idea of being able to take refuge in a language where I can address things on my own terms, without others being in a position to intrude.

Sunday, February 15, 2009 -- 4:14 am

Despite Frost's crack that "poetry is what is lost in translation", I've long been of the view that given enough space to express oneself and suitable vocabulary, any notion expressible in one language is fundamentally expressible in another. This is not to guarantee, of course, that it would be expressed quite as effectively, because the medium and method of communication is sometimes as important to the message as the ideas behind them. A sentence or paragraph of explanation carries a rather different punch from a syllable with the same denotation, and may be more or less effective depending on the circumstances. But the basic ideas can nevertheless be conveyed.

But this view, which I remain firmly committed to, sometimes leads me to overlook the other side of language diversity, which is that each language has a suppleness of expression, and categories of expressiveness, that will probably not be glimpsed or even imagined by the beginner. I've heard people say they've been told that they assume an altogether different persona when they're absorbed in speaking another language, and I've also become aware of the phenomenon of bilingual people switching languages midstream because they feel that one language better allows them to say what they mean, for reasons of expressibility rather than fluency. I suppose that beginners miss out on some of this simply because of the priority of understanding formal, universal, and professional speech registers, so as to avoid getting fired, beaten, or arrested, while a lot of the color lies in colloquialisms that may (may!) be more fleeting, more regional, or more specialized in their social usefulness. But some of it seems to lie in idiomatic expressions, and some of it, including some issues associated with honorifics or evidentiality, even seems to lie in grammar. Almost as striking as Tariana's colorful palate of obligate evidential markers, for example, is hearing that Japanese has a range of colloquial personal pronouns suitable for different situations. It makes me feel that even for the eight or nine languages I study most actively, I hardly know anything.

Sunday, February 15, 2009 -- 3:36 am

Recently in my studies of Middle Egyptian I came across an ancient proverb translating as "If you keep quiet, results will come." Perhaps I'll supply the original script once Unicode gets around to including Egyptian hieroglyphs in its code charts. But I like to joke that in some obscure Himalayan village there's a monastery devoted to teaching the ancient Yoga of Silence, since I find that my ability to hold my tongue may well be one of my most powerful assets as an attorney, and one that I should cultivate further. This reflects a view that's grown on me in the past few years that people often yield far too easily to a misguided instinct to speak when saying nothing would be more constructive. The most immediate consequence of this is a growing tendency for me to pare down business e-mails after I've drafted them to avoid saying anything unnecessary. A colleague of mine compared it to her grandmother's adage that you should always remove at least one piece of jewelry before leaving the house, but there's more to the idea than avoiding ostentation or beating a dead horse. There's also the component, perhaps attributable to Clausowitz, that developing an excellent military strategy is only part of the challenge; the far more challenging part is trusting in the strategy and continuing to adhere to it despite the confusions and pressures of battle. Far too many sound plans are abandoned before they reach fruition because of a failure of nerves, and these ill-advised actions close windows of opportunity before we have truly had a chance to take advantage of them. And this is as true in interpersonal dealings as it is elsewhere. I have encountered people who, when they get themselves into a jam, instinctively and impulsively try to talk their way out of it. Even when I counsel them, in an official and professional capacity, to remain silent and to allow me to resolve the problem on their behalf, they initially agree to wait, but then disregard my advice and blurt something out anyway, only compounding the problem further. They then claim that it was an emergency situation that required immediate response -- despite my insistence and reassurance that there was no such urgency. Like a swimmer who has fallen overboard, they panic in the face of incertainty and splash about, when lying flat in the water would be the best way for them to reach shore safely. But every word they say commits them irrevocably to a reality that until that point had simply been one of many possible interpretations of an ambiguous world, and brings with it consequences that they have not objectively anticipated. It seems that many of us simply are not safely left alone among our own thoughts.